EWFA Chapter 3
Chapter 3 - 4chan in a Day
MOST OF THE media coverage that 4chan has received over the last year has focused on Anonymous (again, capital A Anonymous). This is the loosely organized hacker collective responsible for a variety of unrelated pranks, hacks, and protests beginning in 2007. 4chan’s the sort of place where unseemly characters congregate to plan pseudopolitically motivated mischief. We’ll get to them later. But what’s it actually like to be there?
I spent twelve straight hours on the site, documenting my experiences in real time. Everything you’re about to read actually happened as I’ve presented below. I haven’t added a thing to make it interesting. I don’t need to.
Take my hand. Call me Virgil.
The Enthusiast Boards
As of this writing, there are 49 boards that make up 4chan.org. When you read about 4chan in the news, you are most likely reading about /b/, 4chan’s Random board. And for good reason. /b/’s traffic makes up more of the activity on 4chan than the other boards combined. /b/ is a no-rules board that fosters all kinds of nasty behavior. I discuss it later in this chapter. But first, some descriptions of the enthusiast boards found on 4chan that focus on specific areas of interest.
Note: All posts quoted from 4chan and elsewhere are reproduced exactly as posted.
/a/ Anime & Manga
4chan was originally conceived as a place for anime and manga (comic book) fans to talk about their hobby and share images from their favorite anime franchises. There are strict rules in place to ban those who spoil storylines. Not much to see here if you’re not an anime buff.
As someone who has little personal interest in anime, I haven’t spent much time on this board. But anime has had an important influence on the rest of 4chan, and on Internet culture at large. Anime fandom in the West exploded with the advent of the Internet. Before the web, fans acquired VHS tapes from pen pals in Japan and drove for days to get to annual anime conventions. Today’s anime geek has millions of hours of content at his fingertips, all dubbed, subtitled, and readily available. What’s more, he has a deeply informed network of superfans he can consult 24/7. And if he can’t find some obscure piece of content, he can inquire at /a/ and likely receive an answer within seconds. Still, the hobby demands a deep devotion, and this is a favorite place for fans to geek out.
Japanese culture is deeply embedded in underground Internet communities like 4chan, partially because the initial scarcity of anime in the West drove anime nerds to the web to find information about their hobby—but also because certain strains of anime lean towards the transgressive, and transgression loves company.
One of the more recent social experiments on 4chan, the /adv/ board is a crowd-sourced advice column. Sometimes responses are genuine, even heartfelt. Sometimes they’re snarky and mean, but in a lighthearted, creative way. A lot of the questions deal with nerds asking help for dealing with girls.
Here’s the top question right now, verbatim:
Ok, so here’s my problem. Next fall, I got into my last year of college. I’ve havent declared a major, but I can finish either English or Psychology in two semesters. If I go into english, I will go to law school. If I go into psych, I’m in the long haul for a PHD. I enjoy psych alot, but I want the best for my future family and I’m concerned about money.
Advice is requested with the understanding that many of the responses will be trollish in nature. But half the fun is seeing what kind of creatively terrible advice anon (i.e., lowercase-a anonymous, the anonymous crowd on 4chan, not to be confused with Anonymous, described above) is able to come up with.
/an/ Animals & Nature
This board is for photos of plants and animals only, with frequent discussion on how to care for pets and plants.
The top post:
So I found a baby cat on the streets yesterday, me and a friend brought him home, tried to feed him some tuna, she didn’t want any of it, but she had some milk. Now I’m keeping her at my house, and, well, I’d like some advice on what to do now, for getting to shit and pee in one place and food she could eat that doesn’t go to waste after two hours, and if I should bathe her. She’s got no wounds or anything, but she was pretty scared yesterday night, crying and getting into my bed and in my sheet, and now she’s sleeping in a box on my dad’s lap.
Here is a place for lonely anime nerds to post cute, as opposed to erotic, anime pictures. Bookish girls with sexy librarian glasses and big eyes dominate the board.
One poster describes his crush with an enthusiasm that perfectly encapsulates the vibe:
For me, attraction is mainly her physical appearance. She looks like a doll or a lollipop with a curl of ice cream or something on her head. It’s very appealing visually. Also she is good at doing/saying really cute things, especially things boys like.
But it’s not just about looks. I stumble on one poster who insists that his infatuation with a particular anime character from a series called Magical DoReMi is based on the strength of her character as depicted in the show:
A lot of it has to do with her selflessness and personal sacrifice for others. This is best showcased in the beginning of Sharp when she’s taking care of Hana at night, while still juggling school and her idol work. I can barely keep up with just school on its own. Her straightforwardness can come in handy sometimes too.
I’m no psychologist, but it seems the attraction to cute, childlike anime girls is driven by a fear of real women. These cartoons don’t talk back, they don’t judge, and they’re innocent and trusting. Best of all, they’re often depicted as being into nerdy guys. The producers of these series’ know their audience.
People throw the word love around quite a bit on this board, and they mean it. To the extent that a human being can love a cartoon character, these guys (and a few girls too!) do. It’s not just a sexual thrill. One guy says that such and such a character is so beautiful he could cry, and I believe him.
/cgl/ Cosplay & EGL
This discussion board is for people who dress up like anime, video game, or other fictional characters for fun. It’s called cosplay (costume-play). If you’ve ever been to a comic book or video game convention, you’ve probably seen these folks—though there are also many conferences dedicated solely to cosplay culture. Hard-core cosplayers spend thousands of dollars on everything from exotic fabrics to wigs to comically massive foam swords. There are lots of women hanging around /cgl/. EGL stands for Elegant Gothic Lolita, a Japanese fashion that looks like modest, frilly Victorian garb, but is very dark and influenced by punk/goth subcultures.
It might seem at first glance as though there’s something wrong with adults who dress up like comic book characters. I’m tempted to think from time to time that there’s something unhealthy about cosplay fans, who obsessively ponder the history of their favorite fantasy characters, who devote most of their free time absorbing ephemera relating to their hobby, who spend a decent chunk of their disposable incomes building their identities around their hobby . . . and then I go to a football game.
/ck/ Food & Cooking
Alright, /ck/. I’m on a mission and I’m not quitting until I succeed. I don’t like eggplant or zucchini. I’ll eat them if I absolutely must, since I’m not a 5-year old, but I do not like them and have never cooked anything with either of them.
But, there MUST be a way to prepare eggplant or zucchini that I will enjoy. Not tolerate, but actually enjoy. I want to be able to say, “Fuck yes, I want to eat more of this shit!” So I come to /ck/ for suggestions on delicious ways to prepare eggplant or zucchini. I will NOT give up and you WILL hear from me again, either asking for more suggestions or to confirm that I’ve succeeded in my quest to enjoy these two vegetables.
4chan’s cooking board allows users to share recipes, kitchenware deals, and cooking tips. It’s all very macho, as though the boys are attempting to compensate for their interest in a traditionally domestic hobby.
Another anime board. This one’s full of photos of male anime characters—a gay-male and hetero-female counterpart to /c/.
/co/ Comics & Cartoons
A home for images and discussion regarding Western comics. This includes everything from superhero fare to graphic novels to Spongebob Squarepants. The current top thread began with someone writing “Meanwhile at Taco Bell.” Hundreds of responses follow, each taking on the persona of a comic book character, writing what, say, Spider-Man would say if he was chilling at Taco Bell.
This is where things start to get really weird. Hentai is hard-core pornographic animation. The “alternative” part means tentacle rape (a slippery fetish that goes back centuries in Japanese art) and a host of other deviant sexual fantasies played out in ink. Here you will find sexualized depictions of women who are half-arachnid; cannibalism; and massive, intricately drawn monsters covered in genitalia from head to toe like some kind of Lovecraftian nightmare creature. The psychology behind these fetishes runs far deeper than the scope of this book.
Ecchi is the soft-core alternative to /d/. So if you’d rather see a Sailor Moon nip-slip than tentacle rape, welcome. The current top thread is a “pillow” gallery. These are anime girls who are embracing, and sometimes humping, pillows.
4chan’s fashion board blows my mind. It’s populated by super-stylish people asking each other questions about $300 dress shoes. I guess not all 4chan users are dragon shirt-wearing neckbeards. A popular meme on this board is to post a photo of oneself trying on outfits. It’s like having a room full of stylists telling you what to wear each morning. Right now someone is giving a hilarious tutorial on how to fold clothes (“Don’t use Japanese folding techniques? You don’t know shit about clothes”).
Physical fitness tips and photos of weight loss progress are just a few of the discussion topics you’ll find on 4chan’s fitness board. Some are more serious than others.
The current top thread:
Okay so every other weekend i get shitfaced. I’m trying to reduce bodyfat at the moment, however i understand getting shitfaced is VERY bad . . . But . . . . . . . . is it still possible reduce bodyfat while drinking every other weekend?
Of course 4chan has a gadget and tech board. The conversation here isn’t much different than what you’d find in the comments section of an average tech blog. Users often post photos of their “battle stations” (i.e., home computer setups featuring massive screens and gaming peripherals).
/gif/ Animated GIF
A place to share animated GIFs; the board is generally flooded with porn. GIFs are small animated image files that are used on 4chan either to isolate a tiny portion of a video clip or to string together several images to form a slideshow.
GIFs are found all over 4chan, and increasingly on the web at large, as many blog-commenting platforms and message boards allow users to submit animated GIFs as comments. Sites like GIF Soup allow people to easily convert YouTube footage into GIFs so they can share them with friends on blogs and social networking pages.
Over the last few years I’ve noticed people using GIFs in lieu of text to convey an emotional reaction to someone else’s content. A GIF of Sesame Street’s Bert looking nonplussed is a more concise, clever way to express one’s reaction than saying, “Wow, I don’t know what to say.” On 4chan, people will post a GIF image with the caption, “MFW [My Face When] ____.” It becomes a game to find, or make, new GIF images to represent emotions.
Yet another board for sharing hard-core cartoon porn, though this one’s more about Princess Mononoke having sex with a fellow human being as opposed to a sea monster.
Positioning myself as a reporter, I asked the board what they get out of cartoon sex and these are some of the responses I got.
we don’t have to explain shit to you. GTFO. [Get The Fuck Out]
It’s kind of like how you look at :) and you see a smiling face. Just because it’s less detailed doesn’t mean it’s not attractive to us. Why don’t you go talk to people who read erotic fiction.
With hentai, you’re getting an artists representation. the models are cute and flawless. so much better than real porn.
because hentai characters aren’t faking it.
I hit refresh. Uh oh.
You are banned! ;_;
You have been banned from all boards for the following reason:
posting irrelevant garbage - report on your ban, seymore hersh
I’m used to /b/, where you’re allowed to say whatever you want. Not so with the other boards. I should have known better than to mess with hentai fans. I won’t be able to access 4chan for another two days.
2 days later . . .
/hr/ High Resolution
High-resolution 2D/3D artwork, scans, photography, and images. Mostly safe-for-work eye candy, like close-up pictures of eyeballs, nature scenes, and cityscapes. People typically use this imagery as desktop backgrounds.
One can expect to find at least one thread dedicated to comparing the average penis size in different countries, and a lot of “USA rules, UK drools!,” but sometimes /int/ surprises with an informed discussion about geopolitics or world trade.
/jp/ Otaku Culture
Otaku is a catchall term used to describe people who are obsessed with Japanese pop culture. One would expect this board to veer into less commonly discussed elements of Japanese culture, but it is dominated by anime.
The word otaku is derived from the Japanese word for home, and loosely implies that otaku people spend all their time at home watching anime, playing video games, and otherwise obsessing over nerd culture. Calling someone “otaku” in Japan is an insult, but in the West the term has been embraced as a badge of honor among people who possess a passion for all things Japanese. They are stereotyped as basement-dwelling, unhygienic virgins who sleep with body pillows fashioned to resemble Japanese pop stars, surrounded by massive collections of action figures and DVDs. On 4chan you can find masses of people who are into Japanese pop culture, but you can also find a strong anti-otaku vibe. People who post anime on /b/ are often told to “Go back to /jp/.”
On 4chan, otaku are often called wapanese, or white Japanese, in the same way that white people who emulate African-American culture are derisively called wiggers. Otaku are also called weeaboos, which is a term created by a wordfilter—a bit of code that automatically changes one word to another, in this case instituted by 4chan founder Christopher “moot” Poole—that automatically changed wapanese to weeaboo. Weeaboo is a reference to a nonsense word from a Perry Bible Fellowship web comic strip that has nothing to do with Japan or Japanese culture. I suspect moot just thought the word sounded funny.
If you own nine samurai swords, this is the board for you. A popular thread on the front page reads:
guys you have a grizzly charging you at 100 yards what gun do you want and you only have one round left what cal and what make is it?
There are always a few threads on /k/ that are dedicated to arguing about specific aspects of gun control.
Despite being populated by Randroids (Ayn Rand devotees) and sci-fi geeks, 4chan’s literature board is another that continually surprises with clever content. A common game is “Honest Covers,” wherein players post Photoshopped images of novels with blunter titles. Nabokov’s Lolita becomes Likeable Rapist. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises becomes Jews Ruin Parties. This board probably has the highest ratio of quality content to garbage content, since it’s frequented by people who have read at least one book.
Mecha culture is made up of dozens of different sci-fi universes all based on bipedal fighting robots, like the zords from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Mecha vehicles are often piloted by humans, and anthropomorphized so that fans will be able to bond emotionally with hunks of metal. The genre is extremely popular in Japan, encompassing feature films, comics, toys, novels, and more.
4chan’s music board gives music geeks a platform to engage in the age-old practice of cultural snobbery. It’s dominated heavily by metalheads, the one true music of computer nerds. People post what’s currently on their turntables, take glamour shots of their hi-fi setups, and create lists upon lists that quantify specific eras and genres.
Photos and information about planes, trains, and automobiles. Looks like most people use it as a forum to talk about bicycles. There appear to be some commercial pilots in here talking with some air traffic controllers. It’s of course impossible to verify, but the language they are using implies that the discussion is legit.
Car talk and slick photos of cars. A lot of arguing about the relative merits of NASCAR vs. Formula 1 racing. I once saw a lengthy thread where people debated which parts they’d use were they given the ability to perform maintenance and repairs on the Batmobile.
Personal photography only. Users are encouraged to include a description of when and where photos were taken along with a description of the camera used. This board has a few fun games, like “Take a photo of the view from your window.”
/po/ Papercraft & Origami
Dedicated to the ancient Japanese art of folding paper so it looks like cool stuff, usually related to video games or anime here. 4chan founder moot claims that this is one of his favorite boards.
/s/ Sexy Beautiful Women
Yet another porn board. This one’s just for soft-core nudes of actual human females, which makes it something of an anomaly on 4chan.
/sci/ Science & Math
People arguing about science. Trolls trying to rile up math nerds. Kids looking to get quick answers for their homework. Armchair physicists pondering the nature of time and space.
moot posted the following message to 4chan in January 2011:
- Created to get “rate me,” meetup, report in, cam, etc. threads out of /b/.
- No whining (aka “BAWWW”) threads.
- Post only pictures of yourself-not others. This isn’t a camwhore dump board.
- Per the above rule, nudity is allowed so long as it is of yourself. AGAIN-THIS IS NOT A PORN DUMP BOARD.
So this board is meant for “Rate Me” threads (“Am I hot or not?”) and “Report In” threads (“All NYCfags report in!”). More importantly, it was created to remove such social-related clutter from the rest of 4chan. This board is active, but it hasn’t stopped /b/tards from posting stuff on /b/ that moot would prefer be relegated to /soc/.
Hookup threads are rampant in /soc/. These threads are kicked off when someone writes, “412 report in!” Everyone who lives within or near that area code will chime in, and more granular, regional discussion ensues. In some cases, threads are more specific. People looking for drugs or prostitutes or just buddies to catch a movie with can find folks within their area codes here.
A place for sports fans to talk sports. Like this:
Hey /sp/, I’d like to have a discussion on stadiums. Specifically, what do you think is the best stadium in each sport. Seriously give it some thought. The things to take in account can be things like History, Atmosphere, Design, Location, Amenities, etc.
This is NOT a comparison of teams. This NOT about how one fanbase is worse than another. Its figuring out whats the best stadium in each sport.
Here people share links to torrents of usually pirated content.
/tg/ Traditional Games
Board games, paper games, war games, card games, etc., go here—another of moot’s favorites. Right now, there appears to be an interactive narrative/role-playing game happening within the board itself.
You are Osyki, newly promoted Totemist and first line of defense for your village against the rabid Behemoths wandering the land. Your master, the previous Totemist, fell in a battle against a terrible Basilisk Wyrm, leaving the duty of defending your settlement to you.
The post goes on to explain the different weapons and skills at your character’s disposal. The thread has over a hundred responses, and the original poster, or OP, acts as a dungeon master, accepting responses as turns and responding accordingly. It’s unclear if the OP picks a response at random or if there’s a system in place to decide which of the chiming voices gets to choose the hero’s next course of action.
You glance around at the assembled items, deciding on one more experiment before you return to the forest to speak with Boand, the Spring Spirit. You pick the Skull Focus from the pile, holding the long scrap of Drake Wing in the other hand. Speaking the Ritual of Binding, you close your eyes.
The game boils down to a choose-your-own-adventure with some puzzle-oriented combat mechanics, but the narrative is as strong as any proprietary role-playing system I’ve encountered. Epic geekery.
A place to talk about, buy, sell, and trade toys. Mostly action figures and the sort of collectibles so expensive no actual kid would own them. Remember the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons? He’d hang out here. One guy is using it at the moment to find an obscure, beloved toy truck from his childhood.
Having yearned for what was (and still is) one of the most poseable Star Wars figures in the entire line, I was elated to have acquired a Vintage Collection Commander Gree a few days ago. Much to my disappointment, his legs were floppy and his movement was severely restricted, so I decided to take him to the work desk for some modification.
The travel board is mostly made of people asking for travel recommendations. There are a few creeps a-creepin’. Here’s the current top post:
Looking for a country with you-know-what kind of tourism in place. Is Cambodia any good? Or maybe Thailand? Any advices? No specifics, of course. We don’t want a ban, do we?
This post is accompanied by a photo of a little girl tiptoeing on her father’s shoes. We are to assume the poster, possibly a troll, is looking for a country where he can find child prostitutes.
Thankfully, only smartasses reply, although it’s possible that this guy is playing along, using ruins as code:
I will assume that you are talking about old ruins and yes, Thailand and Cambodia has plenty. Ankor Wat is in Cambodia and is a beautiful sight, but it is best to visit there from a tour in Bangkok because it is just across the border and cambodia as a country sucks ass. While in Bangkok, you could also check out Ayutthaya, it is a beautiful place with lots of old wat ruins.
Another simply replies, “Reported.” 4chan is usually pretty self-policing when it comes to this sort of thing.
/tv/ Television & Film
A place to talk about TV and film. As of this writing, actress Elisabeth Sladen, who once played a character on British TV’s Dr. Who, has just died. A thread commemorating the death beat reports from most media outlets. A lot of the discussion is dedicated to TV shows that are airing currently. People also use the board more like a real-time chat room, sharing spoilers, projections, and interpretations about shows as they unfold.
Somehow, even more cartoon porn. This one’s specifically for soft-core animated images depicting two or more women.
/v/ Video Games
Well duh. There ain’t much more central to the nerd aesthetic than video games. /v/ is known for being populated by rabid fanboys who angrily flame and troll each other all day. Because a lot of kids are into video games, /v/ is often plagued by the most banal discourse. This board is also incidentally famous for launching the Rickrolling meme. After lolcats, the most recognizable 4chan meme is undoubtedly Rickrolling.
It was a happy accident. moot instituted a wordfilter which changed the word egg to duck, so when someone typed the word eggroll in a post, the word duckroll would show up instead. Duckroll became a silly prank meme when 4chan users started linking their friends to an ostensibly cool site, only to be met with a picture of a duck on wheels with the word duckroll written on it.
So you’d send a friend a link with, “Hey, check out these new screenshots of the Playstation 4,” but when they clicked on the link, BAM, duckroll’d. In the spring of 2007, duckroll morphed into Rickroll when someone posted a link that was claimed to be the hotly anticipated Grand Theft Auto IV trailer, but instead led the victim to a YouTube page hosting Rick Astley’s 1987 smash hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.” It was the Internet equivalent of sending someone on a snipe hunt, with a much more immediate payoff. Beyond the troll, the music video itself was parodied and mashed up thousands of times over.
When moot was voted into the TIME 100 in 2009, Rick Astley wrote a blurb about 4chan.
Before I heard about moot—the mysterious 21-year-old creator of the influential Web message board 4chan.org, who just happened to win Time.com’s online poll to determine the world’s most influential people—I used to think some young kid had stumbled across my video and thought it would be funny to send it to his mates, and it just kind of caught on. I suppose at first I was a little embarrassed by it. I always liken it to when people look through their photo albums or home videos from 20 years ago and think, Gosh, did I really wear that? The difference is, thankfully on the one hand and perhaps a bit scarily on the other, mine are out there for the public to see whenever they want. I find some Rickrolls really funny. Have you seen the one with President Barack Obama? Someone has cut up his speeches and put them together so that he sings “Never Gonna Give You Up.” It’s totally amazing. I find it bonkers, by the way!
I visited New York last fall to do a surprise live Rickroll as part of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I thought it would be a really good and funny thing to be a part of. I called up a few of my friends in the States, and they said, “You’ve got to do it!” So I did! Thanks, moot.
This is your spot if you’re into Pokémon. This forum reveals the surprising complexity of the game, as the discussions get pretty lengthy and heated. Pokémon is very social. Here people exchange information so they can battle against each other and trade cards. On /vp/ and a few other boards, using a constant identity is actually encouraged in order to facilitate trades and meet-ups IRL (In Real Life).
Weeaboo wallpapers galore. Lots of sparkles and blue hair.
High-resolution images used for desktops. One powerful trend is the “alternative art” movement, in which artists recontextualize pop-culture icons. For example, what would Mickey Mouse look like in the Star Wars universe? What would the Mario Bros. do if they found themselves in a world of gothic horror? The Simpsons recast as anime characters? The Reservoir Dogs, but with boobs?
A one-stop shop for naked male anime characters. Currently there is a “nipple” thread going strong. This is a thread that features images of cartoon men with extra-good-looking nipples, I guess.
Creepypasta, which is a variant of copypasta (content that’s been “copy-pasted” from other sources) focused on scary or disturbing stories, can be found here, along with information about UFOs and other paranormal sightings. Right now, there is a heated thread about a spooky “lost” Beatles album:
At a fan event, I managed to follow Ringo after he spoke to the crowd, and eventually had a chance to talk to him alone as he was leaving the building. He didn’t seem upset that I had followed him, probably expected a typical encounter with an obsessive fan. When I mentioned the lost album though, all color drained from his face and he started trembling.
When I asked him if he could tell me any details, he sounded like he was on the verge of tears. He grabbed a piece of paper, wrote something on it, and handed it to me. He begged me never to mention the album again. The piece of paper had a website address on it, I would rather not say what it was, for reasons you’ll see in a second. I entered the address into my browser, and I came to a site that was completely black, except for a line of yellow text, a download link. I clicked on it, and a file started downloading. Once the file was downloaded, my computer went crazy, it was the worst virus I had ever seen. System restore didn’t work, the entire computer had to be rebooted. Before doing this though, I copied the file onto a CD. I tried to open it on my now empty computer, and as I suspected, there was an MP3 file . . .
But it’s more than just campfire ghost stories. Some people spread guides that explain how to summon demons.
Messeth will not perform any requests unless you offer some kind of payment and will not perform major requests (making someone fall in love with you). Feel free to ask for relatively simple things like good luck, a good night’s sleep, confidence to talk to a girl. After making a request, dismith Messeth by saying “Thank you for your services, Messeth. You are free to leave.” Do you really want a lesser demon following you around and causing havoc? Don’t forget to dismiss him!
/x/ reminds me of going to camp and hearing stories about people who’d dare say “Bloody Mary” three times in front of a mirror or something. I think there was a candle involved?
Oekaki (Japanese for to draw) is a place for 4channers to share their own artwork. Right now a post reads, “ITT [In this thread]: Draw your favorite actor eating your favorite fruit.” I see images of Robin Williams munching on an orange. Jack Black eyeing up a pineapple. Simon Pegg requesting an apple, mate.
Oekaki is a fun board because it’s all so immediate. People request drawings and others comply for the sheer communal fun of it. The distinct topic of each thread limits one’s ability to post old drawings, so you know you’re getting fresh artwork.
Further down the page, a post reads, “Draw batman with your eyes closed!” There are 85 hilariously crude responses. In another thread, a man draws fantastically detailed anthropomorphic figures of countries. The thread opens with Albania, a gaunt, winged figure wearing a ceremonial headdress and what appears to be period clothing.
A more interesting game is afoot. It’s a participatory drawing thread. Someone uploads a simple shape or sketch, encouraging the board to add to his drawing. The image explodes in a dozen different directions, some cute, some macabre. Before I know it, the image has been augmented and mashed together with other iterations. It’s an impressive spectacle, as 4channers with wildly varying levels of talent and imagination work together.
Another board for sharing art, only this one allows all kinds of art, including tattoos, crafts, photography, and more. One man leads an art class. He posts a portrait of a woman and encourages his “students” to recreate the image using a pencil. Over a hundred people give it a shot. The work on display leans heavily toward sci-fi/fantasy drawings, but there is some impressive abstract art as well.
4channers upload Flash files here, including short videos, games, animations, and interactive stuff like soundboards and e-cards. You click on a file and you never know what it’s going to be.
I click a random file. It’s an animation featuring a Ren & Stimpy-like character doing appalling things to his genitals to an upbeat J-pop soundtrack. Another is a clip of a cat freaking out at a strobe light. Most of the content on /f/ seems to be aiming for a WTF reaction.
I click on one more for good measure. It’s called “This is a Short Flash About the Man Who Thought He Was Bill Murray.” It’s a stick-figure animation about a man who goes around asking people, “Why hello, how does it feel to be talking to Bill Murray?” They play along, but snicker behind his back. Then one day he overhears their laughter. “So,” he says, “you don’t think I’m Bill Murray?” Then he begins to shake as operatic music swells. Hundreds of disembodied Bill Murray heads explode from within him, then dance around the screen to the epic sounds of a choir. The man turns into a shining ball of light. The heads encircle him and spin, forming two giant columns. They eventually come together to form one giant Bill Murray head, peering off into the horizon as the music reaches its resolution. This is the sort of bizarre humor for which the Internet was made.
This board is for posting links to downloads available on RapidShare, a hosting service. There are three reasons why someone would want to download something directly from RapidShare as opposed to using torrent software. First, it’s much faster. The company claims download speeds at 240GB per second. Second, RapidShare is less traceable, so people use it to download illegal content—and I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill pirated content, though 4chan has rules in place to prevent people from uploading anything that could get them in trouble. Last, you don’t have to wait for people to “seed” content, as you do with torrents. This means that even the most rare niche content will download as quickly as the latest summer blockbuster.
/b/, also called random, is 4chan’s most popular board, both in terms of traffic and notoriety. /b/ is significant because it’s the only board on 4chan that has no rules (the only thing prohibited is committing or plotting actual crimes, the same rules that apply to any public forum on or offline). There’s no topical focus, and every day brings new memes, microcelebrities, and drama.
When the mainstream media talks about 4chan, they are almost always talking about /b/ specifically. /b/ is where the trolls tend to gather in search of lulz, or laughs. (Lulz is a derivative of LOL, or “laughing out loud.”)
“I did it for the lulz” is a phrase popularized on 4chan, used as a blanket excuse for anything from lighthearted trolling to heinous real-world bullying.
Lulz is certainly the main reason that most people keep coming back to /b/. Its popularity was built by bored, Internet-savvy teenage boys. These kids are generally smart, living in suburban wastelands, and writhing with hormonal energy. What else are they supposed to do? /b/ is the new “railroad tracks down by the river.” The new “out behind the 7-11.” It’s where bored kids craving cheap thrills go to experience something, anything that might surprise them or subvert their expectations. Of course, teen boys aren’t the only ones hanging out on /b/. I’ve personally observed soldiers, pilots, cops, zookeepers (at least, people claiming to be these things) on /b/. Yes, most people who use /b/ fall into a very narrow demographic, but the site attracts folks from all walks of life.
People also flock to /b/ to find porn. But wait, aren’t there other boards specifically designated for porn? Yes, but they don’t take into account Rule #34.
Rule #34 of the Internet
“If it exists, there is porn of it.”
I just saw a drawing of Bart and Homer Simpson engaged in sexual intercourse. You think that’s bizarre? How about the kid from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree somehow penetrating his deciduous patron? /b/ is a clearinghouse for messed-up porn. The sort of thing that would make any sane person wonder, “Just who exactly is getting off to this stuff?”
Answer: Probably someone. But not necessarily. Rule #34 has become a game on /b/, whereby someone will throw out a few pop-culture icons (The Brave Little Toaster and . . . Simon from American Idol!) and a specific sex act. Depending on the complexity of the challenge, everyone else participating in the thread will rush to find an image matching the description. If it doesn’t exist, generally some hero will whip something up in Photoshop, or at least MS Paint.
Of course it’s not all cartoon porn. /b/ has midget porn, bestiality, S&M, all things scatological, people popping intentionally nurtured zits, people picking noses, men injecting saline into their scrotums until they’re the size of softballs, girls crushing fruit while wearing stilettos . . . The more bizarre it is, the more sought after.
Are there really that many deviants out there?
Probably yes, but at some point activity on /b/ becomes less about titillation and more about the thrill of discovering yet another terrifying demonstration of human deviance. Just when you thought you’d seen it all, BAM, here is grainy security camera footage of a man having actual penetrative intercourse with a dolphin in what appears to be a zoo aquarium. You can either retreat in terror or laugh at our shared human depravity.
There’s a common joke on /b/, where someone will find a photo of a crowd of people with faces contorted in horror, except for one guy who bears a condescending smirk. “Spot the 4chan user,” says the caption. The idea is that the average /b/tard has borne witness to so many unspeakable horrors that his general reaction to things most people find repulsive is a smug grin.
This Is Happening!
Along with that thrill of the unknown comes the feeling that only you and a handful of others are experiencing something as it’s happening. It’s a visceral sensation that solidifies the social bond (i.e., I was there, man). On /b/, you’re thinking, “We are seeing something no one else has ever seen in human history! This is actually happening!” Of course it’s not always exciting, but it happens often enough to keep people interested.
This sensation isn’t limited to content of a sexual nature. By sheer luck, I once stumbled onto a thread in which a guy claimed to have just robbed a jewelry store. He provided images of the automatic rifle he used to hold the place up along with his loot—hundreds of rings.
I just robbed a jewelry store with an M4 assault rifle. Feeling excited but kind of scared.
wat [should I] do now?
The thread was ablaze in minutes. People called him out as a fraud, but no one could firmly dispute his claims. The gun was real. He even took it apart, performing a fieldstrip to show the bolt carrier, firing pin, and extractor to confirm the gun’s authenticity. He posted close-up shots of the rings to prove they were real. Someone found a link to a news story about a jewelry store that had in fact been robbed. We’ll never know for sure, but it seemed legit. Imagine the thrill this moment brought to thousands of bored teens across the globe. It’s like reality television, but unscripted, uncensored, and interactive.
/b/ has become a place for interesting, offbeat things like this that lack an institutionalized venue that’s willing and able to display them.
When there isn’t anything exciting happening, people make their own fun. Right now there is a thread titled “Give yourself from 10 years ago advice.” Responses range from hilarious to heartbreaking.
“Video games will all be the same repetitive shit in ten years so just stop now.”
“FUCKING INVEST IN APPLE.”
“Don’t marry that asshole. Oh, and tell Dad that Mom is going to shoot him and make it look like a suicide.”
We move on. Here’s an invitation to participate in “Operation Holy Shit.” It’s an image of a Quran accompanied by the following message:
“Do you see this piece of shit right here? Yep, that’s a motherfucking quran. It’s the guide radical muslims use when they want to learn how to be even more hateful. It incites violence against peoples of all religions. If we ever want peace in this world we must let the extremist muslims know that we will not put up with their bullshit.
Your mission is to burn a copy of the quran, videotape the burning and post it on youtube. The results will be intense. Qurans are easy to acquire. Go to your local muslim student association and ask for a free copy and ask for one at your local mosque.
APRIL 16TH. THE DAY /b/ FOUGHT AGAINST RADICAL ISLAM.”
This sort of call to action appears now and then on /b/, and is generally what leads the press to believe that 4chan fosters hatred. Los Angeles Fox affiliate KTTV did an investigative report in 2007 about the burgeoning Anonymous hacker movement, referring to 4chan as an “Internet hate machine.” 4chan of course found this hysterical and now many use the moniker as a badge of honor—as well as “hackers on steroids,” another term used in the report. Most posts like this fizzle out before they pick up any momentum, but this thread has over two hundred replies in two hours. Sure enough, a few are linking to videos of Quran burnings. But not everyone is on board. Here, there be moralfags.
“If you carry through with this, inoccent people will die! last time someone did this, 2 sweedish UN workers got decapitaded.”
One poster suggests that /b/tards sully the holy books of all religions in various ways. Why stop at burning the Quran when you can defecate on the Torah? The suggestion ends in frustration, with the poster unable to come up with a way to offend Buddhists. It becomes a game to see who can be the most offensive. I’d bet that 95 percent of these people have no specific beef with Islam, they’re just doing it for the lulz. These calls to action can be as far-reaching as “Let’s bring down Islam” and as personal as “Let’s all post nasty messages on the Facebook page of this girl who rejected me.” Anyone can put together one of these posters.
This effort, as almost all calls to action on 4chan do, went nowhere. There was no media coverage. The operation was dead in the water. When a particular cause fails to garner support on /b/, people will respond, “/b/ is not your personal army.” This usually results when people try to harness the trolling power of /b/ so they can terrorize someone who called them fat. /b/tards need motivation to attack, and some random guy’s personal agenda usually doesn’t cut it.
Nggrfggts, One and All
4chan users often call each other names with the suffix -fag. Christians are called Christfags. New 4chan users are called newfags. Let’s examine the term moralfag, used to disparage people who express reservations about the antisocial behavior outside of 4chan. They are often called enemies of the lulz for claiming that /b/ has gone “too far.”
The idea is that these people love morality so much that they are “gay for it.” The reference is sophomoric, but in most cases it’s not meant as a direct slur against homosexuals—/b/tards will often refer to themselves as being oldfags (veteran users) but the implicit meaning is there nonetheless. Another term bandied about quite frequently is nigger, which is used to describe just about anything. Some enterprising linguists have combined the two most offensive words in the English language together to form the repugnant moniker niggerfaggot, a term so succinctly offensive that I can almost appreciate its elegance. Almost.
I talked to Lisa Nakamura, the director of the Asian American Studies Program and professor in the Institute of Communication Research and Media and Cinema Studies Department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She’s written at length about racial identity on the web in several books. We talked about the rampant use of racial and homophobic slurs on 4chan.
They want the benefit of the shock value or the ability to anger people but they don’t want to be responsible for what they actually said, which is not fair. The line between someone who is a racist and someone who behaves like a racist is pretty thin, especially in online discourse, where pretty much what you write is what you are.
“Have you ever seen the movie Office Space?” she went on. She reminded me of a scene in the film where a white office drone blasts gangsta rap music from his sensible car’s stereo while stuck in traffic on his way to work. He raps along to the violent lyrics, caught up in the dynamic beat, when he spots a black guy selling flowers, walking towards his vehicle along the median. He panics, locking the door and turning down the music until the harmless guy passes out of earshot.
“That’s 4chan,” laughs Nakamura.
A lot of people are happy to consume the media products and enjoy the spectacle of “blackness” or kung fu movies. But the reality of people of color is not often something people want to confront at all. A lot of disenfranchised, disaffected white people feel like they’re also fighting the man, they’re also on the edges, but in some really important way they’re not.
I’ve personally observed that homosexuality seems to be much more accepted on 4chan than non-whiteness. You can’t last ten minutes on /b/ without coming across a thread devoted to gay porn or cute boys or even friendly, accommodating discussion about the homosexual lifestyle. Whereas, the US seems to have gotten over its fear of racial minorities to a much larger degree than its fear of gays.
I believe, along with writer and NYU professor Clay Shirky, that this is because gays are members of every community. There is no explicit gay-straight segregation, at least not in the Western world, yet there are still miles and miles of geography that contain people of only one race. When the people from these areas come face to face with people of other races on places like 4chan, it can get ugly. Secondly, minorities are so infrequently open about their race on 4chan that any time they prove their identity with a time-stamped photo, the thread inevitably veers to responses like, “Whoa, a black guy on 4chan?!” There’s no guarantee of tolerance on /b/.
And yet, I keep coming across minorities there, and at many Anonymous-organized protests. I spoke about 4chan hate speech with author and journalist Julian Dibbell, whose pioneering coverage of troll culture has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, and elsewhere. He agrees with Nakamura that the reception of racist content is more important than the intent of the “fake racist.” But he feels that once people enter the world of 4chan, the perspective of the receiver adjusts along with the trollish intent of those who would post racist content.
The racist stuff would not keep coming up if it didn’t have a charge to it. But once you enter into the world of 4chan and you’re able to recognize what the intent is, you’re able to recognize that it’s different. I used to wonder why the minorities that I’ve spoken with hang out on /b/ and are a part of Anonymous. And you look on the board and you start to realize the kind of game that’s going on.
That’s a key word, game.
Blink And You Miss It
Moving on, we see a weed hookup thread, in which people post their location and contact info in order to score or sell pot. Another thread reads, “Ask a German Anything,” wherein people inquire, “Why must your country be so awesome but your language sound so angry and phlegmy?”
“Ask Me Anything” posts are popular on 4chan. I’ve seen police officers, soldiers in Iraq, transvestites, prostitutes, midgets, scientists, ex-cons, porn actors, people who have attempted suicide, and roadies for popular bands post AMAs. It’s a fun way to peek inside someone’s life, though you can never be completely sure of the authenticity. People ask very specific questions in order to prove the veracity of AMA claims. In a few hours, I’m going to post my first AMA: “Ask a Guy Who Is Writing a Book About 4chan Anything.” Should be fun!
Upon refreshing the page, I see an adult diaper fetish thread, an “America > Europe” thread, and an argument about gay marriage. There has been a running joke on the web since the advent of social networking that by the time you’ve caught up on your Facebook news feed, RSS reader, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, and whatever else, your Facebook news feed is already full of fresh content again. You could spend your entire day (your entire life!) reading updates on content aggregators and social networks.
One of the most striking things about 4chan, especially on its /b/ board, is that you can refresh the page a few seconds after it loads and be presented with an entirely new page of content. Unpopular posts are deleted in just a few minutes.
When a person adds to a discussion thread, it “bumps” the thread to the top of the board. The 4chan FAQ reads:
All threads have a set bump limit (varies board to board). When this limit is reached, a thread will no longer “bump” to the top of the board, causing the thread to descend through the pages until it is marked for deletion and pruned. This method of post-limiting, while sometimes inconvenient, assures that content is kept fresh on the boards.
If no one is bumping the thread up to the top, it will descend to the bottom of the board, soon to be deleted. 4chan keeps no archives, so if you miss something, you miss it forever, unless someone’s saved it on their hard drive or posted it somewhere else online.
Picture 4chan like a moving stream with kids placing boats made out of newspaper (these are the discussion threads) in the water. When someone posts something uninteresting, the thread behaves like a boat that’s left to float down the stream until it eventually drops off a waterfall, never to be seen again. When someone bumps a thread by posting, it’s as if a kid picks up the boat and places it back at the mouth of the stream. If enough people post in a thread, the boat can live on that stream for as long as a few hours—but will eventually, inevitably, be left to reach the edge of the waterfall.
Even the most popular posts are deleted, creating a perpetual churn of new information. Trying to capture it all would be missing the point. You just jump in somewhere and climb out when you get bored. There is no hierarchy of content to help you find the best bits. You can’t search or filter the content in any way. The site flies in the face of every user experience trend and rule that’s ever been codified. It’s just a massive, unorganized jumble of unrelated information. Your experience with 4chan at any given moment will be completely different from someone else’s, even if you’re on the same board.
4chan users deal with the ephemerality of content by maintaining “/b/ folders,” which are collections of previously posted favorite images, GIFs, and copypasta that they keep on their hard drives. In the years before the rest of the web started documenting meme culture (in Know Your Meme, Memegenerator, etc.), having a stockpile of /b/-worthy images on hand was essential. Sometimes /b/tards play a game where someone will write, “Post the fourth image in your /b/ folder,” or “Post the scariest image you have in your /b/ folder.”
I spoke with a 4chan user who goes by Jkid, who recently created a wiki site called Yotsuba Society (Yotsuba is Japanese for 4channel), which he envisions as a database of information about chan culture, managed by a team of die-hard “chanthropologists.” Yotsuba Society, according to Jkid, is made for people who are deeply into imageboard culture, not just lulz. I asked Jkid about his /b/ folder.
There are many rare pictures that you can’t find on Google search. What you see on 4chan, even on the slow boards, you may not see for a long time, if ever. That’s why I archive every thread I click on.
Jkid calls this impulse the “prime imageboard directive.” He sees himself as a historical archivist, having collected over 87 gigabytes of material from 4chan alone. He also collects information from other chan boards. Eventually he hopes to document the history of chan culture, from the perspective of the moderators behind the scenes. He manages a volunteer staff of nine, all who hope to create value for the community by documenting their corner of the web.
Another way /b/tards preserve 4chan culture is by submitting particularly epic threads to http://www.4chanarchive.org, a site that accepts user submissions and allows the community to vote on a given thread’s worthiness for inclusion in the archive. It basically serves as a “best-of-4chan” collection, and browsing the site can in some ways be a much more fulfilling experience than slogging through 4chan. I often feel that one must trudge through miles of garbage on /b/ to find the occasional gem—though perusing old threads at 4chanarchive lacks the suspense of seeing stuff go down in real time. 4chanarchive not only saves the page, but all of the images hosted on the page as well. According to the FAQ, the site receives between six thousand and eight thousand daily unique visitors. The top viewed thread on /b/ right now at 4chanarchive is “Men laughing alone with fruitsalad.” /b/tards have collected dozens of stock photo images featuring men laughing while eating fruit salad. I can’t not laugh as I scroll down the page, seeing these cornball shots with the same bizarre theme.
The MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and University of Southampton researchers recently performed a comprehensive analysis of 4chan’s anonymity and ephemerality called “4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community.” They collected data for two weeks, compiling 576,096 posts in 482,559 threads. Their findings confirm how different the 4chan experience can be for everyone involved. Researchers discovered that the median life of a thread is just under four minutes. The most ephemeral threads last less than thirty seconds, often due to being posted at a high-volume time of day and inciting no replies. Furthermore, the median thread spends just five seconds on the first page over its lifetime. Only posts that are able to grab the attention of the group have any chance of staying on the front page for any length of time. They also found that /b/ hosts thirty-five thousand threads and four hundred thousand posts every day. Most shocking, 43 percent of posts get no replies at all—nearly half of everything posted to /b/ is summarily ignored.
The study also examined the subject matter of the threads, broken down this way.
- 27% Themed—“ITT, we post pictures of ex-girlfriends.”
- 19% Sharing—“Check out this lizard that was on my front porch this morning.”
- 10% Questions—“I just got a $300 Christmas bonus and I want to spend it all on Amazon. What should I buy?”
- 9% Personal Info Sharing—“This is my new motorcycle. Does /b/ like?”
- 8% Discussion—“What does /b/ think about the new World of Warcraft expansion?”
- 8% Request for Item—“Does anyone have any high-res Green Lantern screenshots?”
- 7% Request for Action—“This is the phone number of the jerk who stole my girl. Make me proud, /b/.”
- 5% Meta—“/b/ sucks these days. Full of newfags.”
- 6% Other.
Back to /b/. I refresh the page again, and I’m presented with a dozen new threads. The one on top features a beautiful feline in repose and reads:
My cat tiga died today /b/. She was 15. A mean mother fucker but I still loved her. Can it be cat teim?
The thread already has over 150 responses. People post condolences along with photos of cute cats.
Cats, Camgirls, and Comics
Speaking of cute cats, I should probably mention here that they are one of 4chan’s defining obsessions. If I come across someone who’s never heard of Internet memes, the first thing I usually say is, “Have you ever seen lolcats?” That’s because it’s not only the biggest thing to come out of 4chan, it’s the undisputed biggest Internet meme.
Here’s the idea: A humorous photo of a cat accompanied by a caption written in a pidgin English derived from rushed IM speak. The stupidly funny broken English coupled with the inherent cuteness of the cat images made for a viral phenomenon. lolcats were dumb, catchy, and approachable enough that anyone could pick up on the humor after seeing a few.
lolcats first showed up on 4chan in 2005 as a cute joke contrasting with the site’s usual stream of gross-out content, but they did not achieve cultural ubiquity until 2007, when Ben Huh bought http://www.icanhazcheezburger.com and formed the site around lolcats. Now there are millions of lolcat images all over the web, generating millions of dollars. And it all came from /b/’s “Caturday” tradition of posting cute captioned cats each Saturday.
Ah, here’s a big 4chan obsession: a camgirl thread. The words camgirl or camwhore describe a girl on the Internet who attracts the attention of men by using her beauty for fun or profit.
Girls on 4chan will post photos of themselves on /b/, usually holding up a piece of paper (or sometimes drawing directly on their bodies with a Sharpie) that reads something along the lines of “APRIL 5TH, 4:47PM Sup /b/” in order to prove the authenticity of the photo. Without this accompanying message, people will immediately claim that it’s just some guy posing as a girl with a random photo he found on the web. But with a time stamp indicating that it’s happening right now, they start bleating “TITS or GTFO [get the fuck out].” This practice is considered proof of authenticity, and girls need it more than anyone, since the 4chan adage “There are no girls on the Internet” suggests that anyone claiming to be a woman is actually a man either trolling or getting a sexual thrill out of posting as a woman.
After proving her identity as a female, the girl will generally tease the boys for a while, removing one article of clothing at a time, or responding to various requests. The thread eventually expires when there’s nothing left to show, and the boys move on to the next camgirl to come along. Of course, these girls don’t always disrobe. Sometimes they just show up for the attention and leave after posting a few innocent pics.
Some camgirls become famous. Some of them are known for being drop-dead gorgeous while others gain attention by being quirky and weird. Whatever the reason, these camgirls often become 4chan microcelebrities. They are given nicknames and love to show up once in a while, presumably for a self-esteem boost.
4chan’s relationship with women is weird and sad. Some use the word cumdumpster as a synonym for female. Girls even refer to themselves this way. When women appear on 4chan, the men bombard them with commands to disrobe or perform sex acts, but the moment they deliver the goods, they are booed off stage. (Then again, so are men who have nothing interesting to offer.)
I asked Lisa Nakamura what she thinks about the term.
Part of trying to blend into a transgressive social group is trying to prove that you’re more transgressive than them. This is a technique of countering sexism by applying it to yourself first. I don’t think it’s a harmless practice. I think it’s a form of self-abasement that’s pretty similar to what women often have to do in the military, which is a heavily masculine environment. The only way to show that you deserve to belong in a masculine environment is to insult yourself so other people can’t do it. It’s kind of a preemptive sexism. You protect yourself, but it’s the same thing; you’ve just been co-opted into doing it first.
In early 2009 a teen girl calling herself BoxxyBabee (real name: Catherine Wayne) uploaded a series of videos on YouTube that featured her face against a black background, yapping for five minutes about virtually nothing. Her spastic delivery and cutesy demeanor resembled a hyperactive anime girl, and she was quickly declared by many to be The Queen of /b/. This distinction brought not loyalty, but hostility, stalking, and threatening phone calls. The response on 4chan was so strong that Boxxy did something few in her position are able to do: she left the Internet. For a few years, anyway.
Boxxy resurfaced in November 2010 on an anonymous imageboard called Unichan in order to promote an eBay auction. She was selling a bag and wanted to drum up some buzz. She posted a photo of her holding a placard reading “email@example.com” (presumably so 4chan users could send her cash directly through Paypal) and the message “i’m sorry i’ve been so scared. I LOVE YOU! <3” along with the date and time stamp to prove her authenticity. Touched by her return, some anons launched “Operation Give to Boxxy Till it Hurts,” urging 4chan users to send Boxxy cash. /b/tards bid the bag up to tens of thousands of dollars, eBay naturally canceled the auction, and Boxxy disappeared once again.
Boxxy’s place in 4chan mythology is solidified among a long line of young women who have caught the attention of /b/ for being both supercute and superannoying. More recently, the teen pop sensation Rebecca Black was targeted by 4chan trolls. Black achieved instant global celebrity, partially on the strength of hatred coming from 4chan, since the mainstream media was able to position the story as a young girl’s triumph over cyberbullying.
Black’s mother paid a few thousand bucks to a vanity record label called Ark Music Factory, which specializes in recording saccharine pop songs sung by precocious tweens. In exchange, Ark wrote, produced, and recorded a pop song for Rebecca along with an accompanying video. The result was “Friday,” a teen ode to good clean weekend fun. Within a few days, Rebecca went from suburban anonymity to YouTube oddity to global pop sensation. And it annoyed anons to no end. They launched Operation Black Friday, encouraging /b/tards to fax bestiality porn to Rebecca’s school under her name, attack Ark Music Factory’s website, flood her YouTube channel with antisocial comments, and find out where she lived. Nothing noteworthy came of these efforts.
The minimal press coverage of 4chan that I’ve seen over the last few years focuses primarily on the idea of 4chan as a racist and homophobic hate group. The words faggot and nigger are used so frequently, and in situations so far removed from a hateful context, that at times it’s almost difficult to see them as slurs. People open conversations with “Greetings, faggots . . .” or “Have any of you niggers heard the new Metallica album?” The use is so indiscriminate that regular users might see them as terms of endearment. It’s as if they’re saying, “We’re all faggots and niggers here.”
I’m reminded of punk poet Patti Smith’s “Rock and Roll Nigger,” which defiantly declared, “Outside of society, that’s where I want to be,” going on to declare that Jesus Christ, Jackson Pollock, and even Grandma were niggers too. Remember, most 4chan users are computer nerds. The language operates as a way for 4chan users to bond over their shared status as social misfits, friendly monikers for those who see themselves as marginalized.
Lisa Nakamura is skeptical.
Comedians like Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney have done pretty high-profile interviews about why they’ve chosen to stop using the word nigger, even though they have pretty rich comedic histories of using them. People who make the argument that the words are harmless are often white people. I tend to take this argument a little more seriously when it’s coming from minorities.
I refresh /b/ again and find:
Lets make a thread where you go wikipedia and select random article, whatever comes upp, that will be the new name of your dick. ill start: Château Grand-Puy-Ducasse . . .
Further down the page I spot a RageToon thread. These are four-panel comics that highlight subtle things that enrage everyone. They showed up on 4chan in late 2008 and have become one of the most recognizable Internet memes, expanding to places like Tumblr and Reddit.
The comics start with three blank panels and a fourth featuring a crudely drawn, screaming face with the caption, “FFFFFFFFFUUUUUUUUUU-” The artist fills in the first three panels with something that is typically enraging, like when you accidentally rip into a page of notebook paper while removing the perforated edge. They’re simple, catchy, and infinitely shareable because they touch on commonly held but seldom-discussed frustrations. Because they’re so easy to create, their stick-figure template has spawned dozens of variations, including:
- Stoner Comics—Hilarious stories about pie-eyed misadventures.
- Troll Physics—Pseudoscientific explanations for impossible physical phenomena.
- Everything Went Better Than Expected—The opposite of RageToons.
- Forever Alone—A guy in humorous denial of his loneliness.
These are just a handful of examples. Today the form stars a cast of characters numbering several dozen. The important thing about these comics is their status as exploitables, or images that serve as semiblank canvases for the imagination of the hivemind. An exploitable could be a man’s face with a blank thought bubble overhead; everyone can fill in the bubble with their own text. It’s kind of like the New Yorker caption contest. It becomes a game to creatively fill in the blanks.
And it doesn’t stop at text. Photoshop wizards augment the imagery itself, for hilarious results. Exploitables allow anyone to engage in the communal meme pool that is 4chan, with a very low barrier to entry. All you need is some basic image-editing prowess and a sense of humor, and you too can achieve maximum lulz. Some of the comics that come out of these threads surpass anything I’ve seen in the Sunday funnies.
A Meme Pool For Participatory Culture
There are many words used to describe this kind of interactive entertainment. Some call it riffing; others call it remixing. Media scholar Henry Jenkins calls it participatory culture. Before the web, most content was produced by professional content producers and broadcast by professional broadcasters until it reached you and millions of other consumers. The web has obliterated that process.
Consider a recent meme called Nyan Cat, aka Pop Tart Cat. Nyan Cat is an animation depicting a cat with a Pop Tart body flying in space with a rainbow contrail. It was originally posted to a comics site, then made its way to Tumblr in GIF form. Someone else set it to a hyperactive electronic pop song created with a vocal synthesizer that sounds like a person saying “nyan nyan nyan” over and over, and uploaded it to YouTube. Then 4chan and Internet culture blogs like Buzzfeed picked it up. Since it was uploaded, someone mashed it up with heavy metal band Slipknot’s music video for “Psychosocial.” Dozens of alternate animations and parodies were created. A bunch of musicians independently covered the song with piano, guitar, and Japanese lute. There’s a dubstep remix. There’s a video of a guy on an exercise bike dressed up as Nyan Cat, pedaling to the music. There is a Nyan Cat flash video game. Between the image parodies, video mashups, audio remixes, games, and other references, the flying cat with the Pop Tart body is a memetic sensation with tens of thousands of iterations—and it’s only been viral for a month, as of this writing.
Another example of participatory culture is Advice Animals, which also began in 4chan but has seeped out into the broader web. The Advice Animals are some of the most visually arresting and immediately satisfying image macros on 4chan, and, like Ragetoons, have expanded to places like Reddit and Tumblr. It all started with Advice Dog, a cheerful puppy against a bursting rainbow backdrop. Nothing could be cuter. And then, you read the caption, which consists of two lines; a command above and below the dog’s adorable face:
STEAL THE CANDY
FROM THE MEDICINE CABINET
The cutesy image of a dog juxtaposed with horrific “advice,” made for a powerful meme. Then came Courage Wolf, a snarling beast that offers extreme platitudes:
THE DOCTOR SAID IT WAS CANCER
I CALL IT A CHALLENGE
And Insanity Wolf:
YOU SAY KIDNAPPING
I SAY “SURPRISE ADOPTION”
And Courage Pup, a miniature version of Courage Wolf:
DAD SAYS NO LUNCHABLES
PUT IN CART ANYWAY
The meme soon expanded to include dozens of other animals and people. There’s Bachelor Frog, a stereotype of the slacker lifestyle:
CAN’T HEAR TV
CHEW CHIPS SLOWER
Business Cat, who spouts business cliches:
I NEED YOU TO STAY LATE TONIGHT
WE REALLY HAVE TO CATCH THAT RED DOT
And Socially Awkward Penguin, who’s always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time:
WAITRESS TELLS YOU TO ENJOY YOUR FOOD
SAY “YOU TOO”
And so on. Now there are millions of variations of the Advice Animal meme encompassing Hipster Disney Princesses, OCD Otter, and more. They usually derive their humor in one of two ways: Either they speak universally recognized but seldom spoken little truths, or they rely on pure shock value. The closest pop-culture equivalent to these diptychs would probably be editorial cartoons.
I’ve described just a few of the simpler visual memes. They’re not examples I’d point to if I wanted to demonstrate the intellectual vibrancy of the medium; they’re just case studies in virality. Nyan Cat is not only a video, but an experience in which thousands of people are actively participating.
Today, most consumers have the ability to be producers, and communication channels no longer move information in just one direction, from few to many, but can move information back and forth and back again. Pieces of content rub up against one another in melting pots like YouTube, DeviantArt, Tumblr, and Reddit. Users recut their favorite films, make custom music videos for new pop songs, and develop sprawling fan fiction based on beloved literature. The experience of consuming entertainment is now only part of the fun. Today, we can make the entertainment our own, and it happens nowhere more dynamically than at 4chan.
“You Barf You Lose” reads the description of a newly christened thread. Accompanying this caption is a photo of a corpse; the top half, anyway. Threads like this are called “gore threads.” The object of this game is to find revolting images featuring mutilated bodies, autopsy photos, animated GIFs of suicides caught by security cameras, and so on. Gore threads are a parade of death and dismemberment, drawing on the adolescent male impulse to gross out one’s friends. Perhaps it’s a way to laugh in the face of death. Maybe it’s just the visceral thrill of seeing something you’re not meant to see. Call it /b/-horror.
“You Barf You Lose” is only one of the many iterations of the “You Lose” games. The most popular is “You Laugh You Lose,” in which players compete to post the most hilarious, freshest images. In “You Bawww You Lose,” players post the saddest pictures they can find in order to make people bawww, or cry. One that immediately comes to mind is a devastating image of a loyal dog lying next to a body bag, presumably his recently deceased owner. “You Rage You Lose” has people posting links to pages containing troll-baiting content, like some 14-year-old kid’s ADD YouTube rant about libertarianism or a woman complaining about misogyny in the workplace.
One of the more fascinating games is “You Fall In Love You Lose,” which pits players against each other to find not so much the hottest girls, but photographs of women that they’d like to hold hands with while strolling along a promenade. It’s interesting how these /b/tards, who have long been desensitized to the most extreme forms of pornography, tend to gravitate toward photographs that depict women as innocent, carefree, and generally wholesome. The girls featured prominently in these threads are almost always fully clothed. There are several more “You Lose” games, all designed to elicit strong, specific emotions such as nostalgia, lust, or bewilderment. 4chan is defined by its users’ desire to outdo each other, and these threads capture that mentality.
Another example of a game 4chan likes to play is called “Delicious Cake.” Someone will post a crude MS Paint drawing of a man and a cake separated by whirling blades, deadly spikes, monsters, pits of lava, and the like. Then everyone else in the thread will augment the image, explaining how they will overcome the obstacles in order to acquire the delicious cake.
There’s also “3 Items That Make the Cashier Wat.” Wat is a catchall response to anything mind-blowingly bizarre. It’s like saying “What?” but comes across as more deadpan. The challenge here is to come up with three items that would freak out a cashier. Some examples:
- A pregnancy test, a metal clothes hanger, a goldfish.
- A wooden crate, a rope, and an ice-cream cake.
- A hunting knife, duct tape, six boxes of Lunchables.
The best ones don’t imply gross sex or murder, like “A box of Cheerios, milk, and a single spoon.”
Other games include “Make This Face,” “Read The 3rd Sentence on the Last Page of the Book Nearest to You,” and “Finish This Drawing.” New games are being created every day. The /b/ community is constantly coming up with new ways to defeat boredom.
You’re just as likely to come across a thread with guys comparing pictures of their dicks as you are an example of wildly creative storytelling or deep philosophical debate. It’s true that the lion’s share of content on /b/ tends to be sophomoric, but it is random after all, so there are pleasant surprises.
Here we go. I’ve just found some copypasta, which is content that’s been “copy-pasted” from other sources. I know it’s old content because I googled it and found a match.
Okay so I am starting to have a panic attack because I am afraid the fucking FBI is going to kick my door down any second so if this is my last post on /b/ I hope it’s epic. To start it all off I live in a pretty quiet, secure, suburban town. I have a cat that I love more than life itself and a neighbor that is dumb as fuck. next door to me lives a New Family that just moved in a year ago or so, they have a child thats probably 18 months or so old. This kid is the fucking devil. He has cause more problems than any other kid I have ever heard of. Anyway, I have observed on several occasions the child torturing my cat. The parents let the child play outside alone quite a bit, I imagine they supervise from the kitchen or patio, I can never really tell from my vantage point, I just assume so since the child is so young. I have seen my cat (who is so friendly he literally goes up to everyone he see’s and rubs against them) wander over to the child and get friendly only to witness Satan smaching the cat, punching him, ripping out clumps of fur, and grabbing his tail and not letting go. The cat is so nice that he doesn’t even try to attack the child, just squirm away in pain as best he can. I always have to run outside and save my cat, but there have been times this happened when I was not around. Now I know this makes my cat look stupid but the fucking kid actually goes out there trying to catch him, my cat learned from the first encounter but since then his parents have given the child some cat nip and other such treats to try and lure that cat over. So finally I snapped today after I saw the kid throw a rock at my cat. It hit him on his hind leg and I imagine it’s broken, I saw the cat limp away whining with his leg literally being dragged behind him. I went on my computer and pulled up Earth Caller.
I called up the neighbor (I knew the mother was the only one home). And as soon as it started to ring I played some music on my computer near the mic and bolted out the door. I ran to the back yard, looked in the window and saw the mother with her back turned walking to the phone. I snatched the kid and bolted out of there. I know she did not see me. I cupped his mouth so the bastard would not make any noise. I ran inside and grabbed a black trash bag from my house. I literally stuffed the fucker in there and went for my car in the front. I threw the bag in my car and drove off non-chalantly. I drove for a while and got out in a wooded area and literally just through the bag in the woods. The kid screamed so loud. I herd the thud and then took off. I went to a friends house from there so I had some kind of alibi and then I came home and started typing this. Am I fucked /b/? I am pretty sure the kid is dead . . .
People make up freak-out tales like this, and responses range from ironic support to outrage to bored yawns. Some of them turn out to be elaborate shaggy-dog stories.
Copypasta is also used as a template for riffing. Consider the Bel-Air meme, based on the lyrics of the opening theme of Will Smith’s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which are recontextualized in different situations.
They’ve been remixed for Darth Vader:
Now this a story all about how
My life got flipped turned upside down
And you should take a minute just listen to this
About how I became apprentice to the Dark Lord of Sith.
In West Tatooine I was born and raised . . .
You get the idea. Here’s another version, spoken like a caricature of a real British gentleman.
To begin, this is a tale of how my very existence was twisted and transformed in a most peculiar way. Please have a seat, for I wish to take a moment to relate to you the fascinating odyssey which ultimately led to my reign as the Prince of Bel-Air. I was sired and reared in West Philadelphia. As a lad, most of my time was spent at the neighborhood recreation center where I would laze about and relax in a most charming manner—that is, when I was not engaging my chums in a friendly game of basketball at the schoolhouse. Around this time, two young hooligans had begun to stage a campaign of vandalism and intimidation in my neighborhood. When my mother discovered I had had a bit of an altercation with the ruffians, she insisted I leave town at once and take up lodgings with my aunt and uncle in Bel-Air.
There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of these things. Any time a major news event occurs centering on a specific person, some /b/tard will inevitably create a Bel-Air meme to commemorate the event.
Know Your Trolls
Now is probably a good time to explore the world of trolls. Trolling is the act of agitating or fooling people for fun under false pretenses. It’s derived from fishing lexicon, in which trolling refers to slowly dragging a baited hook or lure from a moving boat in order to simulate the natural movement of, say, a minnow, in order to trick a fish. The modern definition may also come from the mischievous trolls of European folklore. 4chan didn’t invent Internet trolling, but 4chan attracts trolls like no other community before it.
There are a few types of trolls:
- The Deceiver—Tries to get you to believe something that’s not true.
- The Know-nothing—Pretends to be dumb so you waste time explaining something. Uses bad grammar so you take the time to correct him.
- The Pottymouth—Uses offensive words to annoy.
- The Contrarian—Plays devil’s advocate to an obviously unreasonable perspective.
- The Hissy Fit—Throws a fake tantrum so you expend energy convincing him to calm down.
- The Accuser—Accuses you of being a troll, knowing you aren’t.
The troll is an interesting creature with a long heritage dating back to the trickster characters of ancient mythology. The Greek prankster Pan, the Norse god Loki, and the conniving Native American Coyote are a few older examples. One could argue that even the Biblical Satan primarily exists to troll humanity. The trickster’s mark is all over modern Western popular culture, from Brer Rabbit to Bugs Bunny to Bart Simpson. Trolls pester, poke, and prod until they get what they want: control of your emotions.
I spoke with Ted Frank, legendary Usenet troll, though he’s more famous today as a leading tort reform advocate and founder of the Center for Class Action Fairness.
Frank’s name came up multiple times when I researched the history of trolling. He replied quickly to my request for an interview, but immediately insisted that we define our terms.
Trolling meant one thing in the small close-knit Usenet community of the 1990s, where it was used to describe innocent pranking of know-it-all Cliff Claven types with subtle disingenuous displays of ironic ignorance—by making the sort of mistakes that could only be made by someone who was actually knowledgeable about the subject, and a close reading of the post would demonstrate that the writer couldn’t possibly be serious about his mistake.
The know-it-all newbie would arrogantly correct the troller (often making a mistake of his own), and everyone would laugh. That was an art form of sorts, but the term also started getting used to describe more malicious provocations. When spam overran Usenet (and Usenet itself became superseded by more sophisticated web forums), there wasn’t really a forum for the innocent version, because the dynamic of new people entering an Internet community changed. Usenet always had a large ratio of experienced posters to newbies.
Frank insists that the relationship between the trolling on 4chan and the trolling on Usenet can be explained as nothing more than an etymological coincidence. The trolling of his day was bitingly clever, with relatively mild pranking. He draws comparisons to comedian Don Novello’s Laszlo Toth letters, in which the entertainer wrote prankish letters to famous businessmen and politicians.
Don Novello would write absurd consumer complaints to starchy corporate customer-relations departments and get ramrod-straight by-the-book letters back that were entirely inappropriate to the original missive.
This sort of trolling isn’t completely without social value in the right context.
It served as an educational tool to newcomers not to be condescending to the regulars. In a larger community where most people are strangers, I doubt it has any social value; when it is done purely to provoke, it has no value at all.
Ted Frank palled around with Dave and Barbara Mikkelsons, who went on to found Snopes, the rumor-debunking site that’s served as a trusted source of obscura for 16 years. The Mikkelsons met on Usenet, developed a relationship based on their shared fascination with urban legends, and eventually married. According to Frank, Dave Mikkelson (“Snopes” on Usenet) was a pro troll, who was known to have called candy companies to complain that their products did nothing to relieve his headaches.
Now, the type of personality that engages in snopes-like trolling is the kind of personality that doesn’t mind going into a room and being told by everyone there that he’s wrong, questions authority, and starts up a snopes.com or a Center for Class Action Fairness, but that’s a different issue.
Today, heinous forms of harassment are lumped in with this clever pranksterism. Usually, trolls on 4chan use a little bit of both. In 2008, Oprah ran a segment on Internet predators. Leading up the show, a /b/tard posted the following message to Oprah’s message board:
We do not forgive. We do not forget. We have OVER 9000 penises and they are all raping children.
Cue disbelieving gasps from the audience. Who knew such evils were lurking in the family computer room? As it turns out, OVER 9000 is an old 4chan meme from the anime Dragon Ball Z, in which a character humorously screams the phrase. The quote was an obvious troll to anyone who spent any time on 4chan, but to Oprah’s producers the quote contained the perfect amount of cold-blooded evil for their fear-mongering segment.
Oprah repeated the quote on her show, attributing the quote to a “known pedophile network” that was both organized and systematic. Meanwhile, Anonymous had itself a hearty lol. There are currently hundreds of videos on YouTube making fun of Oprah for the incident. Tricking a celebrity into acknowledging the existence of Anonymous was funny, but doing it under the pretense of a fake army of over nine thousand organized pedophiles was considered an epic win for the trolls. I often wonder if anyone told poor Oprah afterwards that she’d been had.
Perhaps the finest example of a pre-Internet troll is the late comedian and entertainer Andy Kaufman, who made a career out of subversive multilayered publicity stunts so convincing that some fans still doubt the authenticity of his 1984 death from kidney failure. Kaufman would concoct elaborate hoaxes and practical jokes. He once appeared on The Dating Game as a sweating, stuttering foreign man whose awkward delivery confounded the other participants.
In one highly publicized troll, Kaufman sparred with professional wrestler Jerry Lawler. He claimed to have suffered a neck injury and wore a neck brace wherever he went, including a legendary on-air fight with Lawler on the set of Late Night with David Letterman. Not even his close comedian buddies knew for sure if the neck brace was worn genuinely. Kaufman’s feud with Lawler was later revealed to be 100 percent staged.
Kaufman’s jokes were often on his audience. He delighted in messing with people’s heads. He once read The Great Gatsby aloud to an audience expecting standup. At first they laughed, but he refused to stop, even as they booed and left the auditorium.
Check the monologue from I’m From Hollywood, a documentary which included a promotional video Kaufman made to rile up Southern wrestling fans.
I want to talk to you. And I want to help you. Every week I’m going to be coming here, on this station. And I’m going to be giving you little tips about how you can better your lives. And how I can bring you up from the level you’re in right now. And how I can bring you up from the squalor that you’re living in, in the gutter, and the garbage that your lives are.
This is a bar of soap. Now, does it look familiar to any of you? I know that you probably don’t know what this is and probably you don’t have ever seen one of these before. But it is called soap. Matter of fact, if you’re sitting at home now, you can maybe repeat after me and say: “Soap.” Say “soap.” S-O-A-P, soap. Not “sowp.” Not “say-owp.” It’s “soap.” okay?
You people, your hands are so greasy and slimy. I mean, I don’t wanna shake ‘em. You ask me for an autograph, I’ll sign you an autograph. But please, don’t put out your hand and shake it until you can wash your hands. That is what you do: Wet your hands, okay, then wet the soap. Wash the soap, rub it on your hands, rub it around and your hands will get clean.
The video continues with Kaufman condescendingly instructing his audience in basic hygiene, intercut with reaction footage of enraged Southern good ol’ boys claiming, “If I saw ‘im right now I’d kick ‘is ass!” During his wrestling matches, thousands would shriek for Andy’s head on a platter. And the footage shows he’s loving every minute of it.
In the same documentary, comedian Robin Williams declares, “Andy made himself the premise and the entire world was the punchline.”
If Andy Kaufman is a spiritual ancestor of /b/’s penchant for outlandish stunts, then alternative rock stalwart Steve Albini plays godfather to the site’s more subdued smartass. I mean, the guy had a band called Rapeman, which provoked picket lines and news crews crowding the band’s small indie rock gigs.
In an interview with Adam Dolgins, author of Rock Names, Albini clarifies that he discovered an obscure Japanese comic book featuring a hero called Rapeman, who rapes women who’ve wronged his clients. Albini writes songs about serial killers, wife beaters, and gruesome executions. His first band, Big Black, had an EP named after Budd Dwyer, a Pennsylvania politician who shot himself in the mouth on live TV. Very /b/.
What interests me the most about Steve Albini’s dark brand of trolling is that he’s operating within the realm of rock and roll, which is supposed to shock and offend . . . parents. Albini takes it a step further. He wants to mess with feminist studies students and went straight for the throats of liberal progressives and the alt-rock elite, calling universally revered bands tedious, for example. Very /b/.
Now, imagine a world full of millions of would-be Andy Kaufmans and Steve Albinis loosely working together. Only these trolls are all faceless, with no reputations to protect and nothing on the line. That’s the environment in which I’m about to expose my identity.
Here goes nothing.
Are You There /b/? It’s Me, Cole
My publisher recently posted a page about my book with a cover mockup on the site, so I’m able to give 4chan a teaser. I type out a simple message.
Oh hai /b/,
What do we think of this?
I type out the CAPTCHA (an authentication process instituted by moot to limit SPAM that made /b/ practically unreadable for a while in 2010) and exhale. Click.
I hit refresh. One response:
That it’s a book
who the fuck cares? Somebody wrote a book about 4chan. This isn’t a secret underground organization.
Of course, it’ll be distributed threw BitTorrent right?
Oh fuck me. I hate this little cunt.
I make a follow-up post, unlikely to be believed. “I’m writing a book about you. What do you think about that?”
That’s pretty cool, OP.
We think you’re asking for more trouble than it’s worth. Seriously.
Rule 1 and 2. you will die soon
OP, kindly an hero [that is, kill yourself] immediately. As if anyone gives a fuck other than cancerous summerfags [also called noobs] like you
I’d love to help you out with the book in any way, writing it or just online distibution/marketing, or design. Willing to get some help?
OP, are you ready for the potential shitstorm aimed at you?
Cool story, bro.
The thread continues with various empty threats, insults, and a few surprisingly sincere optimists who tell me they can’t wait to read the book. One person Photoshops a pirate mustache onto my face and posts it. Another writes:
Don’t publish your book, you faggot. You probably suck at writing and are trying to scrounge money together because you know you’ll never have an actual job because you majored in journalism. Your days are numbered, Cole.
The thread continues, devolving into a loose argument about whether 4chan is worth writing a book about. Soon, someone posts an inappropriately graffitied photo of me, yanked from my personal blog. Time will tell if the /b/tards actually try to find out where I live or target me in any way. Probably not, but I’m not going to go any further out of my way to invite harassment.
I have used the word game to describe the experience of /b/, and more broadly, 4chan and the Anonymous movement. I believe people are drawn to /b/ because it’s a ludic playground, where the rules are perpetually being redefined.
Play can be defined as any activity that is done for personal enjoyment. In its barest definition, a game is structured play. (Unstructured play being something like daydreaming, blowing bubbles, or frolicking in a field.) A game must have an achievable goal, with walls erected between the player and the goal that make it a challenge to reach. These walls are rules that define the game. One could say that 4chan is a game in which the rules are in a constant state of flux.
It reminds me of Calvinball, from the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. In the first Calvinball-related strip, creator Bill Watterson defined the only permanent rule of Calvinball: You can’t play it the same way twice. So Calvin and his imaginary tiger pal Hobbes are constantly reinventing the game, bickering over the rules every step of the way. The strip lampooned the childhood tendency for groups of kids to make up their rules as they went along, when tempers, politicking, cheating, and boredom make strict rules difficult to uphold.
There are very specific games happening within each individual thread of 4chan, and one can observe 4chan as an ongoing global metagame like Calvinball. Sometimes the goal is to piss people off. Sometimes it’s to make some specific person’s life miserable . . . or wonderful. Other times the object of the game is to confuse outsiders or wreck others’ idea of what the game is about.
Mine is a generation raised by video games, which teach children to test the boundaries of their rule sets, mess with their environments, and memorize entire tiny universes until they’re able to spot and exploit holes and glitches. Computer hackers identify with this impulse to a large degree. For them, systems are made to be mastered, broken, and messed with. When playing a game the way it’s supposed to be played gets boring, they seek out cheat codes and other ways of essentially “breaking” the game. It’s one thing to beat or win a game, but can you say you’ve truly mastered a game until you’ve broken it?
This kind of metagaming is not limited to video games. Think of all the various ways people find to enjoy professional football, for instance. They place bets on teams, they play fantasy football, they engage in playful taunting with the fans of opposing teams. The football happening on the field is just a small part of the game experience.
You Just Lost The Game
In April 2009, Time magazine held its annual TIME 100 poll, part of which was dedicated to the most influential people on the planet. Candidates included the likes of Tina Fey, Hu Jintao, Gamal Mubarak, and other luminaries of art, science, business, government, and philanthropy. Time opened up the list to online voting, and the 4chan hivemind set to work putting moot at the top of the list. When they accomplished that, they decided it wasn’t fun enough. They eventually gamed the whole list, ensuring that the top twenty names would spell out a coded message to fellow /b/tards that they had indeed accomplished an epic win.
It all started when 4chan discovered that moot had been included as one of the many candidates in the TIME 100 poll. 4chan hackers (and this is low-level hacking to be sure) found that they could game the poll with a series of custom autovoter URLs associated with each candidate. The /b/tards spammed the URLs far and wide, including a limit for each, so the candidates would appear in the proper order. Time spotted the shenanigans, reset the poll, and changed the URL protocol in order to authenticate votes.
Now the challenge was really on. The hackers set up an IRC channel to discuss the hack, eventually figuring out how to bypass the authentication process (Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, is an early form of real-time chat favored by Anonymous because it’s easy to hide one’s IP address). Some autovoters were created that could vote one hundred times per minute. Others created apps that would cycle through IP addresses so the Time site wouldn’t be able to detect that the spam votes were coming from a single computer. Eventually the hackers were able to craft scripts that would easily manipulate the poll’s order. Their final list began:
- Anwar Ibrahim
- Rick Warren
- Baitulla Mehsud
- Larry Brilliant
And so on, with the first letter of each name spelling out MARBLECAKEALSOTHEGAME.
Marblecake is a probably fictional scatological sex act defined (if you are prepared to brave it) at urbandictionary.com. But what about The Game? This is a popular 4chan meme that presages the site. The point is to make the victim think of something or notice something very specific, with the moment of realization delivering a sense of having been had. The object of the game is to avoid thinking about The Game.
According to http://www.losethegame.net, The Game was invented in 1977 by members of the Cambridge University Science Fiction Society (CUSFS) as a variant of the White Bear Game, in which participants try to think of anything other than a white bear, which the human mind makes difficult in a mental phenomenon called ironic processing.
So it becomes a competition to make people recognize The Game in clever ways. On /b/, people will craft sprawling posts culminating in the anticlimax, “Oh, btw, you just lost the game.” They write “You Lost The Game” on currency and spray paint it on walls.
I first lost The Game when someone on /b/ urged me, “Check the TV Guide for 6:00pm on Thursday you won’t believe it!” I played along, and sure enough the broadcast description for that slot was a mere two words: The Game, a 1997 thriller starring Michael Douglas.
4chan’s gaming of the TIME 100 poll has gone down in history as one of the most epic Game-related wins, since they were able to make millions of people cognizant of The Game. Furthermore, they arguably established Anonymous as the true winner of the TIME 100 most influential poll.